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How Seattle PD is using Axon VR to train officers better and faster

We sat down with Seattle PD for a candid conversation about the future of law enforcement training

After more than 25 years as an active-duty police officer, Jim Morgan of the Seattle Police Department knows how challenging street-level work can be. When he transitioned into a training role, he learned firsthand how current training methodologies can fall short. That’s why he jumped at the chance to bring Axon VR into Seattle PD’s workflow.

Clint Collins and Matt Torma from the Axon VR team sat down with Morgan to pick his brain about his role as TASER Master Instructor and VR coordinator, the challenges his department faced, how he brought VR in as a solution and the impressive results. Here are the highlights from the conversation.

The limits of traditional training

Morgan says the existing training systems for both crisis intervention training (CIT) and TASER energy weapons fell short in several ways. Using slides and videos took a long time and didn’t engage trainees, while roleplay training suffered from a lack of realism and consistency.

First of all, pulling officers off the street for training had a knock-on effect on their schedules. “Having our patrol take the day off and be off the streets limits our response time,” says Morgan. “They have to come fight for parking, change their hours – and when you do that to anybody outside of their regular life cadence, they're already not in the mood to train."

It didn’t help that trainees also often had to deal with limited instructors and props. When no instructor was available to roleplay in the scenario, the nearest warm body would have to sub in, learn a script on the spot and play out the scene. That reduced the realism of the scenario, as did the training’s use of props that did little to create an immersive environment.

“We don't have many dedicated facilities around here at the venue, so we'll use a stack of mats and pretend it's a bridge. And we tell trainees to imagine that this is a bridge, or this is a city, when they're actually looking mats and chairs,” says Morgan.

“They literally have to ask us again, ‘This is the bridge?’ We almost had to write down ‘bridge’ and put it on a piece of paper.”

All this reduced the consistency of training. It also took a long time to set up, run individual officers through, reset and repeat, with the other officers simply waiting around the whole time.

Traditional TASER energy weapon training

Many of the same limitations applied to TASER energy weapon training. Either trainees practiced on static targets, or they needed an instructor in an oversized velcro suit — also referred to as a hook-and-loop training (HALT) — suit to aim at. Either way, each trainee needed an instructor to supervise their form. With an upgrade from TASER X2s to TASER 10s on the horizon, Morgan knew he needed a way to get officers up to speed on the new technology as fast as possible. He turned to Axon VR.

How Seattle PD integrated Axon VR

Since receiving its first VR hardware from Axon in March 2022, Seattle PD’s program has expanded to include 48 headsets and 16 TASER 10 VR Controllers. Every officer in the department has to go through Axon VR. The VR hardware is used in two key ways: Community Engagement Training (CET) and TASER energy weapons training. 

Community Engagement Training

Community Engagement Training is designed to cultivate skills, empathy, and de-escalation tactics for interacting with community members, victims in crisis, and individuals experiencing a mental health episode. These modules let Morgan prepare officers for challenges they might never have faced before they’re forced to do so in the real world.

“There’s a huge library of content,” says Morgan. “So I wasn’t forced to pick.” 

Morgan mentioned that scenarios immersing officers in topics focused on mental health, such as autism, have been particularly effective as these topics are challenging to replicate in real-world training.

“Some of our trainees had heard of autism but didn’t know too much about it. To actually see through a first-person viewpoint of somebody on the spectrum? I can’t imagine there’s anything else that can deliver that.”

Most modules can be experienced in 15 minutes or less. All an instructor needs to do is preload a scenario, tell trainees what they’re going to see, highlight the learning objectives, run the scenario and debrief afterward. 

"The amount of time that saves, and the efficiency, you can't match," says Morgan. 

TASER energy weapons

Using Axon VR, Morgan can immerse trainees in a virtual firing range to enhance proficiency with TASER energy weapons. Through repeated practice of fundamentals and skill-based training, trainees refine techniques like target assessment, verbal commands, drawing, targeting at varying distances, and accounting for various clothing types, body positions, and movements. These exercises enhance speed, accuracy and confidence under stress.

The TASER 10 VR Controller comes right off the same assembly line as the actual TASER 10 energy weapon, so it has the same weight, balance, and in-hand feel as the duty TASER 10 energy weapon. That gives trainees a physical familiarity with the weapon that translates directly into the physical world. Plus, Morgan says VR lets him monitor the stances and weapons manipulations of all his trainees simultaneously. That means less demand on limited instructors, plus faster and more effective training overall.

Morgan says TASER VR training has led to a clear improvement in live-fire performance, even among officers who had never deployed a TASER energy weapon – let alone a TASER 10 – before.

“Trainees nailed it right off the bat,” he says. “They were hitting targets quickly and accurately, all the way from zero feet to 45 feet.”

That meant trainees could reach the same level of proficiency while spending less time at the range and less money on live cartridges. They were also much more confident with the weapon after going through the VR simulation.

Advice for those considering Axon VR

Morgan offers two key pieces of advice for those considering Axon VR. The first is to assign ownership of the program to someone who has a real passion for technology and training. If the project lead doesn’t care about tech or doesn’t understand VR, the whole project will be set up for failure. A disinterested lead may struggle with learning how to use the headsets and TASER VR Controllers, and that will make them even less likely to put in the extra work to get the program off the ground.

If your program is in the hands of an enthusiastic instructor, they’ll evangelize the potential of VR tech to everyone they can. According to Morgan, educating the department about VR is critical for getting buy-in from command. Many department heads may not understand the technology, but if they can be shown its value in real terms they’ll be much more likely to support it.

Morgan demonstrated the effectiveness of this education-focused approach in Seattle. When Washington mandated CIT state-wide, Morgan had the sergeants planning the training try out the headsets for the first time. They loved what they saw, and that led to Axon VR as a mandatory element of CIT for every single officer in the department.

Bringing Axon VR to your department

Seattle PD is one of more than 1500 agencies nationwide that has incorporated Axon VR. This cutting-edge immersive training platform has not only enhanced the skills of their officers but has also fostered empathy for civilians in distress, leading to improved outcomes. Curious about bringing Axon VR to your department? Get in touch today.